The Departure of Mattis: The President’s Strategic Challenge and Opportunity

By Robbin Laird

The departure of Secretary Mattis and the coming of a new Congress provide twin challenges for President Trump and will define the final two years of his current term in office.

Whether you like or don’t like General Mattis, he did not appoint himself. And with long period of public service, there really were no surprises in terms of how Mattis performed, either in terms of his priorities, style or approach.

Secretary Mattis is the latest of recent Administration officials to leave, but is really the most important departure.  Mattis and his team shaped a new national defense strategy which focused on the strategic shift from the land wars to preparing to deal with peer competitors.

Apparently, the President saw terminating the endless war in Afghanistan as part of this approach; Mattis did not.

Mattis along with General Dunford have been key elements in shaping the new strategy and certainly reassuring allies along the way.

It is no secret that US allies, including our closest ones, have been concerned from the outset with alliance politics and commitments under a Trump Administration. Mattis and his team plus the new national security strategy provided significant reassurance to those allies.

But we really do not know all of the details of the Trump-Mattis dynamic.

The problem is that the President either by design or accident has never put together a transparent policy making process.

And doing so is a key part of crafting a policy of change in US global policy. Disruption in US policy and commitments by itself is not a policy.

The departure of Mattis provides the President with the opportunity of providing clarity with regard to his real policy agenda over the next two years and to appoint people who will not only shape a policy process but will provide public transparency with regard to that process.

And a core part of that clearly needs to be a more effective process of working with allies.

It is not just about reassurance of allies; it is much more profound than that.

It is about shaping approaches for effective defense of American and allied interests in dealing with the peer competitors.

Because a key challenge facing the US and the allies is crisis management, shaping more effective and transparent working relationships among the US and the key allies is a key part of deterrence.

And here the President faces a key challenge – how to engage in crafting a policy process where both confidence and transparency are evident to our allies.

It would be immensely helpful if the President’s foreign visits were a key part of that process, rather than events which require after event clean up.

As the President appoints a new Secretary, it will be important for him to reaffirm the new national security strategy and underscore that it is not an historical relic of the Mattis period.

His Administration has been too much like an ongoing Rorschach test whereby we read into what we want, whether critics or supporters.

We need a very clear policy process whereby the Congress, the citizenry and our allies know what to expect and can input to that strategic effort.

If we look back to the Reagan years, we can see a leader much criticized and not liked in Europe in the 1980’s.

Reagan confronted the critics and took on the Soviets.

But he was very clear about what he was doing and had a policy team one could work with to understand, criticize and shape away ahead.

And the President clearly respected allies and adversaries alike and found ways to work together.

This is an example worth emulating and can become enhanced under President Trump with his appointment of a new Secretary of Defense and their testimony before the Congress for confirmation.

If President Trump wants to leave behind a solid historical legacy in the foreign and defense arena, he can reinforce that effort with his new Secretary of Defense and a new impetus to a transparent policy process.

I remain hopeful.

But as the Yiddish proverb puts it: “It’s good to hope; it is the waiting that spoils it.”

A version of this article was first published on Breaking Defense.

Editor’s Note:

A good example of the challenge is provided in a piece by the well respected Australian diplomatic editor for The Australian.

The piece by Greg Sheridan was entitled: “In the age of Trump, caution’s an entirely reasonable response,” an published on December 28, 2018.

The call by Randy Schriver at the Pentagon for Australia to adopt a stronger military profile in the South China Sea comes from the heart of all that is good in the Republican Party’s national security establishment.

Schriver is one of few national security figures who could have served any Republican president or, at a stretch, even a hawkish Democrat. He, like departing defence secretary Jim Mattis, is an alliance man.

One problem with his call, however, is a lack of clarity about whether this commitment to alliances is shared by his boss, Donald Trump.

Schriver’s instincts — absolute alliance solidarity, push back against coercion, enforce as far as prudent key international norms — are the best instincts of America.

But in the age of Trump it is reasonable for allies to be cautious….

Schriver’s position in the administration is more critical than ever, with the eclipse of Mattis. Schriver is an old Asia hand, a very good friend of Australia and deeply committed to America’s global security role.

Whether his view of American security will prevail in Washington is unclear.

Another example of the concern expressed with regard to the US and its working relationship with allies was underscored in the editorial of the London Times published on December 22, 2018.

This network of alliances was established in the aftermath of the Second World War by a group of far-sighted officials such as George Kennan, Averell Harriman and Dean Acheson, who were known as “the wise men”.

It kept the peace in the Cold War and ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet Mr Trump has never hidden his disdain for alliances that he believes constrain American power.

He has described Nato as obsolete and railed against other multilateral institutions, vowing instead to put America first….  

We can already see where this might lead.

Since taking office, Mr Trump has effectively paralysed the World Trade Organisation and launched a trade war in clear breach of its rules.

That has sent shockwaves through the global economy and financial markets, raising fears of a recession.

A key concern is what approach the president will take towards Nato.